Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free
Most of us can’t get by without working in some capacity or other. We work because we need the income, but we can also find work fulfilling. You might do work that you find meaningful, connect to people socially at work or feel that you are contributing to your family, community or the betterment of your world through your work.
But even when work has positive benefits it can be stressful. When you care about your work, deadlines, projects and expectations of supervisors can be emotionally draining.
You may worry that a mistake may lead to losing your job or missing out on a promotion or that you’ll be held accountable for work that isn’t going well for reasons that are out-of-your-control. Or maybe you fear conflicts with co-workers or a difficult boss. Then again, you may simply have too much on your plate. In a down economy, many are doing more and more, either in an effort to prove themselves and keep their jobs or because there is no one else to do the work.
Research on job insecurity, for example, suggests that when we are worried we will lose our jobs, our overall well-being suffers. A belief that we will find another job, that we are employable, moderates the negative impact of this worry, but many fear they will not find another job.
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How the Body Reacts
Stress activates the body’s fight-or-flight response. A surge of adrenaline and other chemicals within the body heightens your senses and provides you with excess energy.
When we’re faced with physical danger, this reaction to stress can be life saving. But when we’re sitting at our computers, with no outlet for the energy, it can have a significant negative impact on our physical and mental health.
And when we’re chronically stressed, when this stress response is activated daily, or multiple times a day, each time we’re reminded of job worries, we suffer greater problems. For example, the pounding heart that is a normal response to stress, when activated too often, without a physical outlet, can lead to health problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease.
Other systems throughout the body are impacted by stress. When stressed, your body goes into emergency mode. All it’s energy is focused on staying alive for that moment. But in today’s world, when we’re stressed about whether a presentation went well, this emergency response, often chronically triggered can have long-term health consequences.
When your body is in a state of emergency, it shuts down long-term functioning. Imagine your child was sick and you needed to rush them to the emergency room. That’s not the time to empty the dishwasher, mop the floors or pay your bills.
Well, the body, while under stress, reacts in a similar manner. Cell repair, reproductive processes and other long-term maintenance of the body are shut down during the state-of-emergency that occurs when we’re stressed. As far as our body is concerned, these maintenance functions are not necessary when fighting for our lives.
So, chronically experiencing stress means these processes are ignored over long periods of time, with potentially severe health consequences. According to one study multiple daily stressors are associated with elevations in certain inflammatory processes in the body which are associated with negative health outcomes and even mortality in people who have diseases and those who are healthy (Kushner, et al., American Journal of Medicine, 2006).
What Can You Do: 4 Simple Strategies to Maintain a Healthy Mind and Body
Work worries are not necessarily going to go away, but you can respond differently to the stress they cause.
Exercise: Regular exercise can help release some of the excess energy activated by the fight-or flight response.
Breathe: Focusing on your breathing is one of the most effective ways to calm yourself. There are a number of ways to get centered in your breathing. One method to try when stressed is to breathe in, imagining your lungs as a balloon. Imagine filling the balloon with air. Then slowly exhale, keeping the balloon image in mind. Imagine slowly pushing all of the air out of the balloon. Continue for 5-10 breaths (if you become lightheaded, resume normal breathing).
Be a scientist: Sometimes when we’re stressed our emotions can take over, particularly fear and anxiety. Combine these emotions with worries about job security and your stress can spiral. So try focusing on the facts. Instead of imagining the worst-I’m going to be fired, I’ll be homeless-ask yourself to rate, rationally, on a scale of 1-10 how strongly you truly believe a particular worry thought. Even if your worries that you may be laid off are legit, your worries that it will lead to catastrophe and the ruin of your family probably are not. Hard times, yes, but catastrophe is unlikely, especially if you’re able to keep your stress in check.
Distract yourself: Sometimes we just need to get a little distance from stressful events, in order to think and feel calm about them. This can be where people run into trouble, using too much alcohol, food or other unhealthy coping strategies to get distance from stressors. Make a list of healthy distractions, such as going to a movie, immersing yourself in a book, spending time with friends or playing a sport. Give yourself a mini vacation from thinking of your problems and then return to dealing with them.
When all this stress and worry begin to take a toll on your health and your ability to do your job-the very thing you’re worried about-take a moment, breathe and choose a healthy coping strategy that will get you through tough times without creating more problems.
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